Statement by Dr. Shirley Charter,
Commissioner of Social Security
before the House Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims

March 3, 1995

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here to discuss the integrity of the Social Security card as well as its role in the verification of employment eligibility. We look forward to working with you to address your concerns about the system.

The employment eligibility verification process is composed of two elements: verifying the identity of the job applicant and ensuring that the applicant has authority to work. SSA's role in the current work eligibility verification process is limited. A worker must present to an employer documents which establish either identity or authorization to work or both. Some documents serve as evidence of both elements, but most documents establish only one or the other. The Social Security card is in the latter category, indicating only whether the individual named on the card had authority to work when the card was issued.

For a variety of reasons which I will explain in my testimony, it is not feasible to use the current Social Security card for the purpose of establishing that the person in possession of the card is the person to whom it was issued. Perhaps no single document can guarantee identity.

History of the Social Security Card

Let me give you some background on the Social Security card. At the time the Social Security card was devised in the 1930's, its only purpose was to provide a record of the number that had been issued to the individual so that the employer could accurately report earnings for the individual. That is still the primary purpose for which SSA issues the card. It was never intended to serve as a personal identifier--that is, to establish that the person presenting it is actually the person whose name and Social Security number (SSN)appear on the card. Although we have made it counterfeit-resistant, it does not contain information that allows it to be used to establish identity.

Over time, however, the use of the SSN and Social Security card has greatly expanded, and the card is now used for purposes other than Social Security earnings record maintenance, including its use as evidence of authorization to work. Society's increasing use of computerized data has led to suggestions to use the SSN and the card as a personal identifier. The card itself, however, is still simply a paper record with a name and number on it.

Prior to 1971, all SSNs were issued based solely on information alleged by an individual. Because of the expanding use of the card for other purposes, there was concern about the ntegrity of the card. Beginning in 1971, certain categories of applicants were required to provide documentary evidence of age, identity, and alien status. This made it more difficult to obtain a card on the basis of a false identity. However, the card was still no more than a reminder of the number assigned to the individual named on the card. Because of our concern that individuals who had been assigned SSNs for purposes other than work might use the card to obtain unauthorized employment, in July 1974, we began to annotate our records to reflect the fact that an alien had been issued a nonwork SSN. This allowed us to identify, and report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS}, instances in which Social Security earnings were reported on nonwork SSNs.

Several years later, the integrity of the SSN process was further improved. Since May 15, 1978, all applicants have been required to provide documentary evidence of age, identity, and U.S. citizenship or alien status. Generally, to obtain an original Social Security card, an applicant must submit at least two forms of acceptable evidence, such as a birth certificate and driver's license. Aliens must submit appropriate INS documents to establish lawful status.

Any alien other than one admitted for permanent residence receives a card indicating whether he or she is authorized to work. To obtain an unrestricted Social Security card, they must provide an alien registration receipt card displaying a photograph. This document is issued to aliens by INS.

Applicants for an original SSN age 18 or over are required to have a personal interview. During the interview the applicant is asked for prior names and surnames and the reasons for never before needing an SSN. For those who allege having been born in the U.S., SSA performs additional verification prior to the issuance of an original SSN because most people born in the U.S. have been issued an SSN by the time they have reached age 18. For instance, SSA verifies the existence of a birth certificate at the State Bureau of Vital Statistics for all applicants for original cards who are over 18, and initiates a search for a death certificate when there is reason to believe the applicant may be assuming a false identity.

Enumeration At Birth Initiative

The "Enumeration at Birth" (EAB) program was established in 1989 as another means of improving the SSN process. It is a valuable tool in preventing fraudulent acquisition of an SSN. This program allows parents in the 49 participating States (plus New York City, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico) to indicate on the birth certificate information form whether they want an SSN issued to their newborn child. States provide SSA with birth record information about newborns whose parents want a Social Security card for their child, and SSA then assigns an SSN and issues a card. Approximately one-half of the original Social Security cards issued in fiscal year 1994 were processed through EAB. With the addition of the State of California's participation in January 1994, representing approximately 15 percent of the national births, we expect a significant increase for fiscal year 1995. This process greatly reduces the potential for someone to use another person's birth certificate to obtain a Social Security card. For example, individuals who present the birth certificate of a child enumerated under EAB would not be issued an SSN, since our records would indicate that an SSN had already been issued to the child named on the birth certificate. As EAB expands, there will be fewer children without SSNs whose birth certificates could be used to obtain an SSN for another person.

Federal income tax law requires that persons age 1 or older claimed as dependents for Federal tax deduction purposes have an SSN. By 1996, this requirement will apply to all claimed dependents. This has created a strong incentive for individuals to obtain an SSN for their children and also reduces the potential for someone else's birth certificate to be used.

We must remember that, even with these improvements to strengthen the SSN issuance process, the Social Security card is still just a record of the SSN issued and not an identity document.

General Accounting Office (GAO) Analysis of Enhanced Social Security Card

From time to time, it has been suggested that the Social Security card could be an effective proof of identity if it were enhanced. Some have proposed such features as a photograph, fingerprint or other biometric identifier, hologram, or magnetic stripe that would make the card difficult to duplicate.

GAO was directed by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) to look at this role for the Social Security card. GAO evaluated plastic and polyester card technologies and found that these technologies are two to ten times more expensive than paper cards. In addition, GAO noted that plastic or polyester cards wear out and have to be replaced every few years. In its March 1988 report, the GAO concluded that, even with enhancements, the Social Security card would probably not provide an effective identity system.

GAO also noted that an enhanced card would impose additional burdens on employers, yet provide no guarantee against counterfeiting. Data storage devices require the use of electronic equipment. Off-line readers would merely establish whether or not the name and SSN displayed on the card match the encoded information on the magnetic stripe!'.' On-line systems, linked to a central data base, would be needed to both confirm the name and number match and verify the identifying data the card contains. The magnetic stripe on a plastic card is the technology most in use today. GAO reported that magnetic stripe readers cost $100-$150, a considerable outlay for many employers who would have no other use for the equipment. Also, they concluded that the commercial availability of readers and coding equipment for magnetic stripes makes this technology highly susceptible to counterfeiting. GAO also pointed out that rapid advances in card technology may quickly render obsolete any hi-tech anti­ counterfeiting efforts.

Changing the Social Security card by adding a photograph and requiring that it be signed when issued might make it more effective as an identity document, but people intent on fraud can substitute a photograph, modify their appearance, or reproduce signatures with practice. In addition, pictures on the card would require updating from time to time because of changes in personal appearance.

More effective biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, require verification techniques that are expensive and that cannot be applied by nonexperts. A technology that has emerged for linking users to documents is the Personal Identification Number or PIN. Automatic teller machines in particular have popularized this technology. However, GAO noted that incorporating a PIN in a work eligibility document would require the use of card readers and on-line access to a data base matching the PIN with a unique code in a magnetic stripe on the card. Also, GAO reported that law enforcement authorities have found that many users write their PIN on the card or elsewhere in their wallet or purse in case they should forget it. Thus, if the card is stolen, the thief also has the PIN that permits him to use the card.

GAO concluded that the card would not be a good identifier because it does not satisfy three criteria for a reliable identity document. It must be difficult to counterfeit; allow verification that the person presenting the document is, in fact, the individual to whom it was issued; and be difficult to obtain fraudulently.

We share GAO's views that these are the appropriate criteria to use in evaluating identity documents. It appears that no single document can meet all three criteria, primarily because a determined individual can obtain a counterfeit document or a valid document through fraudulent means. Furthermore, efforts to develop a fraud-proof identity document for employment eligibility verification purposes would require major changes in the process of issuing birth certificates and be very expensive. While it is possible to develoP:k more counterfeit-resistant Social Security card, there are reasons aside from cost-effectiveness why it would not be an effective identity document.

False Documents Impede the Security of Social Security Cards

As I mentioned earlier, even if the Social Security card were enhanced, there would be no assurance that the card had been properly issued to an individual. This is because the documents which a Social Security card applicant must present-­ primarily a birth certificate and immigration forms--are relatively easy to alter, counterfeit, or obtain fraudulently.

In 1988, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a report entitled Birth Certificate Fraud which examined vulnerabilities to fraud in birth certificate forms and issuance procedures and in procedures of user agencies which receive birth certificates as documentation. The problems found by the OIG included:

  • False birth certificates are used to create false identities;
  • An estimated 7,000 local issuing offices issue some 10,000 different versions of birth certificate forms which may be submitted to user agencies for evaluation; and,
  • States have open access to vital records, and there is lax physical security of blank forms and seals, especially in local offices.

In 1991, OIG issued a follow-up report on efforts to control birth certificate fraud. The relevant finding was that the nature and extent of birth certificate fraud appeared to be relatively unchanged since 1988. OIG reported that major weaknesses in the procedures used by issuing agencies continued to hamper the ability of user agencies, both Federal and State, to rely on birth certificates as evidence of identity. The cost of revamping the system by which birth certificates are issued would be enormous, and while some State and local jurisdictions have initiated reforms, most are severely constrained from making major reforms by increasingly limited resources.

Logistics of Reissuance of Social Security Cards

Let me now discuss the logistics that would be involved in issuing enhanced Social Security cards to the almost 270 million current card holders. To be effective, a new card would have to be issued relatively quickly to all card holders.

cards of aliens not authorized to work to identify nonwork SSNs. This was due to the increasing need for perscns to have SSNs for nonwork purposes and concern that such persons could use their SSN for work purposes. These non-employment-related Social Security cards are issued to:

  • aliens in the U.S. who do not have authorization to work, but who need SSNs for a valid nonwork purpose (such as driver's licenses in some States or bank accounts); and
  • Certain aliens residing outside the U.S. (for example, dependents listed on U.S. income tax returns or individuals entitled to Social Security auxiliary or survivor's benefits).

With this legend appearing on the card, employers were able, for the first time, to determine whether an individual was authorized to work. Since September 14, 1992, cards with the legend "VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH INS AUTHORIZATION" have been issued to aliens lawfully in the U.S. with temporary authority to work. Thus, employers are now able to determine if an alien has exceeded the time limit for his or her work authorization by checking the alien's INS document.

Counterfeit-Resistant Social Security Cards

Originally, due to the limited purpose of the Social Security card, no special efforts were made to prevent them from being counterfeited. However, as counterfeiting became a concern, actions were taken to address this problem. For example, legislation enacted in 1983 required that new and replacement Social Security cards be made of banknote paper and--to the maximum extent practicable--be resistant to counterfeiting. The current card incorporates these and a number of other security features. It is now difficult to produce a high-quality counterfeit of these cards.

If the Social Security card were the only work eligibility document, it would have to contain features that would allow employers to easily detect counterfeit cards. Some types of humanly readable security features that make the card more counterfeit resistant are already incorporated in the current Social Security card. However, employers would have to look for them and be trained to recognize counterfeit cards. Under current law, employers are only required to make a good faith effort to ensure that documents are genuine, and they are not required to be document experts. But for the same reason that most of us will accept a counterfeit $20 bill--lack of experience and expertise in identifying a counterfeit bill-­ counterfeit Social Security cards may be accepted by employers.

When improved versions of Social Security cards have been developed, they have been issued only to new applicants because of the prohibitive cost of replacing all cards still in use.

Thus, there are now 46 valid versions of the Social Security card in use. Approximately 61 percent of active card holders have been issued a counterfeit-resistant card. But, as I mentioned, previous versions are still valid and employers generally have no reason not to accept them.

SSA's Role in SSN Verification

It is important to keep in mind that the personal identity and Social Security card appearance issues that I have been discussing are quite separate from the issue of SSN verification. By SSN verification, we mean the process by which SSA determines whether a name and SSN match SSA's records, that is, whether SSA issued a given SSN to a given person. This process cannot determine whether the person presenting the name and SSN is, in fact, the person to whom the SSN was issued.

SSA has always had the capability to verify SSNs, which is an important function in ensuring accurate wage reporting and, ultimately, accurate benefit payments. Employers may immediately verify SSNs for payroll purposes by calling our 800-number or local office. This option is also available to employers who want to verify the SSN as part of the employment eligibility verification process. Relatively few employers call for either purpose, however, because they tend not to question the name and SSN provided by an employee. And although this option is available to employers, neither the BOO number nor local offices are equipped to handle large numbers of SSN verification requests.

With the expansion of the SSN's use over the years, especially as a result of widespread dependence on computers, SSA began to experience more and more requests for SSN verification for purposes other than the Social Security program. Many of these requests were from government agencies for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy of other Federal and State benefit programs, and automated data exchange systems were developed to comply with these requests.

On the other hand, SSA does not verify SSNs for the private sector for purposes other than employer wage reporting and employment eligibility verification. The law and our disclosure policy are designed to protect individual privacy--a fundamental and widespread concern--and the confidentiality of the SSN because of the potential for its use as a means of unauthorized access to personal records.

One of the systems that was developed to verify SSNs for States is available to employers to verify SSNs for employment eligibility verification purposes. The Enumeration Verification System (EVS), which was designed to carry out SSA's role with respect to the Federal-State Income and Eligibility Verification System (IEVS), verifies SSNs based on data such as name and date of birth. Since the mid-1980's, each State has been required to have an IEVS to mateh financial information received from public assistance claimans with information in Federal and State data bases so that they can identify claimants who are ineligible or who receive incorrect benefit payments.

Although EVS is used primarily by States, employers may also use EVS to verify SSNs for wage reporting or employment eligibility purposes. However, because EVS consists of a high­ volume process, under which the requests are transmitted to SSA by mail on magnetic tape and the results returned to the requestors in about 4 weeks, this system does not allow for immediate SSN verification. Thus, it may not effectively serve an employer's employment eligibility verification needs.

IRCA required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to study the feasibility, costs, and privacy considerations of an SSN validation system for employers. From January 1987 through September 1988, SSA tested a telephone system under which employers in 3 Texas cities requested SSN validations orally and received oral responses from SSA employees who had online access to SSA data bases. The test allowed employers to use existing telephone lines and equipment to request SSN validation of prospective employees from SSA and receive an immediate response. This is similar to an employer's calling the 800-number today, except that the test provided for a special staff dedicated to this specific function.

The test results indicated that, although technically feasible, the effectiveness of an SSN validation system in helping employers prevent aliens not authorized to work in this country from gaining employment would be limited, because there is no way to be sure that the job applicant presenting a valid Social Security card is the person to whom it was issued.

Employment Eligibility Verification Pilot Projects

The Commission on Immigration Reform's interim report to Congress in September 1994 proposed a computer registry based on SSA and INS data which employers could check to determine if a new employee is eligible to work. The Commission recommended that the President immediately pilot the registry in the five States with the highest levels of illegal immigration and several other States.

Our SSN data base is highly accurate and is updated overnight. Since the data base was established to carry out Social Security functions, such as to facilitate wage reporting, the data base and its supporting systems are not designed to support work eligibility verification, although they contain information that is useful for that activity. Because of this, we need new programming to support verification of work eligibility and to make the verification process more convenient for employers.

The Administration believes that worksite enforpement of immigration laws is a necessary and effective means of controlling illegal immigration and promoting fair competition among employers and workers in the United States. The Administration's FY 1996 budget proposal includes substantial new resources to pursue this goal. As a part of this effort, the Administration is seeking to enhance effective verification of a new employee's authorization to work in the United States.

A major concern, present when Social Security started and still present today as we pursue this effort, is how best to protect people's privacy. In this age of computers and automated data banks, we must not forget the threat to personal privacy that can be posed by unauthorized access to information in government records; accordingly, we are looking at several possible measures, such as password requirements, privacy agreements with employers, and other security procedures. An Administration interagency group is also reviewing the privacy and civil rights concerns that may arise as we proceed.

On February 7, 1995, President Clinton announced several major immigration reform initiatives, including expanded worksite enforcement. To improve such enforcement, the President also announced several pilot projects to verify employment eligibility for newly hired employees, as recommended by the Commission on Immigration Reform. The President bas directed SSA and INS to develop pilot projects in response to some of the issues raised in the Commission's report and to test the feasibility of matching SSA and INS records in the future.

One of the pilot projects is a two-step process using SSA and INS data bases. CUrrent plans call for a number of selected volunteer employers to request verification of employment eligibility by submitting to SSA a newly-hired employee's SSN, name, and a date of birth. SSA would match that information against its data base and would also check for citizenship/alien status coding. If SSA records indicated that the employee was an alien at the time he or she applied for an SSN card, SSA would advise the employer to verify with INS, using the employee's alien identification number, that the employee was authorized to work. We estimate that this pilot will be operational on a small scale by the end of 1995 or early 1996 in one or more geographic areas with high levels of illegal immigration. We expect to expand the pilot to more employers in 1996 and perhaps 1997.


In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, the Social Security card was originally intended to be nothing more than a means of recording the Social Security number. Its use for other purposes has provided the incentive to improve the quality of the issuance process and the counterfeit-resistance of the card. As I have indicated, we are concerned about the possible use of the Social Security card as an identity document, the costs associated with making it serve that purpose and its implications for individual privacy; nevertheless, we are committed to testing effective, nondiscriminatory means of improving the employment eligibility verification system.

We fully understand and share the subcommittee's concerns about improving the integrity of the employment eligibility verification system. SSA will continue to assist employers in verifying employment eligibility and we will gladly work with the subcommittee to improve that system.